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What can a “gamer” teach us about instructional design?

At the recent ASAE Great Ideas Conference, I was fortunate enough to attend a session led by Matchbox Virtual Media co-founders Arianna Rehak and Kristov Martens. Based on his experience in the video game industry, Martens shared with us some fundamental information about games and what makes them fun.

To start, we tackled the question: What does a game need to be… well, a game? According to Martens, following are some core elements:

  • Objective – a thing aimed at or sought.
  • Rules – one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct.
  • Goals – the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.
  • Activity – a thing (or a series of things) that a person or group does.
  • Uncertainty – something that is uncertain or that causes one to feel uncertain.
  • Decision-making – the action or process of making decisions.
  • Competition – the activity or condition of competing.
  • Collaboration – the action of working with someone to produce or to create something.

As you’d imagine, there are lots of games out there on the market. Only some of them go on to become popular and even fewer go on to reach iconic status (Monopoly, by the way, has been adapted countless times since it launched in 1935 and serves as just one example of what a game can go on to become). This begs the question: What does a game need to be… fun? Following are the four characteristics outlined by Martens:

  • Creating a sense of purpose or meaning around goals and objectives.
  • Reward mechanisms and feedback loops (think: leveling up).
  • Interactivity and agency (i.e., an action or intervention introduced by the player to produce a particular effect).
  • Social connectivity or competition.

And although these characteristics are fairly universal when it comes to games of various shapes and sizes, video games teach us even more about engagement. Following are a list of characteristics Martens shared explaining why video games are so fun:

  • Because they ramp up the “fun factor” to the extreme.
  • High engagement through eye-catching visuals.
  • Strong retention through progress and positive feedback loops.
  • Excitement and uncertainty.
  • Good storytelling.
  • Intense competition, collaboration and creativity.
  • Adventure and exploration.
  • Rewards and trophies (i.e., the high score).

All of this got me thinking about the average association education program – whether in-person or digital. In designing, developing and implementing content for our members, often in partnership with one or more volunteer subject matter experts, how do we account for and build in elements of gaming and fun? Not in a forced or cheesy way, but in a truly unique, engaging way that results in real-world learning and application.

Following are 10 actions you might borrow from the video game industry as part of your next instructional design project:

1. Deliver the fun factor. Encourage facilitators to not take themselves or their content too seriously (i.e., less “sage on the stage”).

2. Develop effective visuals. This includes slide decks, Prezis, handouts, flipcharts and other visual elements that support presentation content.

3. Provide both positive and constructive feedback. Create a culture of feedback that welcomes both facilitator and peer feedback throughout the session.

4. Leverage uncertainty. Occasionally ask learners to try on a new skill before they have all of the information necessary to excel.

5. Employ good storytelling. Weave interesting stories and case studies into presentations to capture and sustain the attention of learners.

6. Create a competition. Where possible, offer learners the opportunity to compete with one another as individuals or small teams.

7. Promote collaboration. Have learners work together as either small or large groups to attain a collective goal or achievement.

8. Evoke creativity. Design sessions that engage as many of the senses as possible both to ignite creativity and to aid learners in solving challenging problems.

9. Offer opportunities for adventure and exploration. Whether digital or in-person, make space for an unusual experience or activity that learners are sure to remember long after the session has ended.

10. Reward learners for a job well done. Think digital badges, printed certificates, private/public kudos and more as formal acknowledgment of knowledge attainment.

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